Hardball a hit?(also published in October 2001 as an edited, shorter version under the title 'Second Chances')
Sure, Keanu Reeves has taken some critical knocks. But perhaps that's because the Toronto-bred actor has played such a diverse range of characters over the past decade - from a dizzy time traveller in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (a good performance) to an 18th-century chevalier in Dangerous Liaisons (not so good). From a disenfranchised teen in the disturbing River's Edge (another good one) to a workaholic adman in Sweet November (downright awful). He even painted his skin brown (I say orange. - Ani) to play holy man Prince Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s unfortunate Little Buddha (just weird). Point is, he’s never been afraid to take chances or try something new.
And when Keanu does overextend himself Hollywood forgives him because, let's face it, the boy's easy on the eyes. Plus, little flicks like Speed and The Matrix didn't do so bad at the box office.
In his latest outing, playing an unlikely Little League coach in Hardball, Reeves ventures into new territory yet again by heading up a cast of children - a challenge with which he also bravely breaks that sacred Hollywood rule: Never work with kids or animals. For "Keanu Goes to Bat," page 32, Earl Dittman spoke with Reeves about making the film, all those strange rumours and getting second chances in life.
KEANU GOES TO BAT
The former Torontonian hopes his new movie, Hardball, will dispel some misconceptions about inner city kids
by Earl Dittman
Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green housing project and surrounding neighbourhood is hardly considered One of The Windy City's top tourist attractions. The supposedly gang-infested ghetto is rumoured to be so dangerous that even the police avoid it once night falls. But since the better part of Keanu Reeves' new film Hardball was filmed in and around Cabrini Green, the Toronto-bred actor discovered - quite by accident - the truth behind the inner-city community's menacing reputation.
During a break in filming, Reeves left the relative safety of the set to take a stress-relieving walk - an eye-opening stroll which landed him smack-dab in the middle of the notorious housing project.
"I really wasn't paying attention to where I was going, and all of a sudden I found myself in front of Cabrini Green," a leather-jacketed Reeves recalls, while searching for a bottle of water in the minibar of his luxurious Manhattan hotel suite. "I had heard all the stories about how crime-ridden it was and that I would be taking my life in my hands by going there.... But I was completely taken by surprise by what I saw and experienced. Sure, it's not the nicest part of town, but everyone I encountered was completely friendly. They were cool. I even got, 'Yo, Bill and Ted’ quite a bit. So it made me realize you can't believe everything you hear. Hopefully, Hardball will change a lot of people's perception about America's inner cities and the people that live there. That walk sure changed my way of thinking."
Based on the true story from the Daniel Coyle book, Hardball: A Season in the Projects, the movie follows Reeves' character Conor O'Neill, a self-destructive, hard-drinking gambler in need of quick cash. His good friend Ticky (John Hawkes) agrees to loan him money on the condition that he coach a Little League baseball team from the Cabrini Green projects. Conor resists at first, but when he realizes there's no other way to get the cash, he concedes. With the help of a caring teacher (Diane Lane) and the actions of a rival coach (D. B. Sweeney), Conor slowly begins to instil faith in his young players and, most importantly, regains belief in himself.
"I really wanted to do the movie because of the great message it sends," Reeves says. "It's about getting a second chance in life. I mean, here's a guy who is falling fast. He scalps tickets. He's a gambler. And he has to pay interest on a big gambling debt. So when his friend tells him that he'll give him $500 a week to coach this team, he thinks it's a real pain to have to do it. But it's exactly what he needs to help put his life together. Although he doesn't know it at first, it's his second chance."
Surprisingly, even Reeves, the star of such blockbusters as The Matrix, Speed and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure confesses he's constantly in need of second chances.
"I've needed them both in work and in life," the 33-year-old candidly admits. "There have been times where I have needed to reassess my existence and decide on a new path.... You know, you retreat just to try to either cope or figure out where your life is at and where you want it to go."
And what an interesting life it's been. Shortly after his birth in Beirut, Lebanon in 1964, his parents divorced and his mother took Reeves and his sister Kim to New York City. While Keanu was still an infant, his mother married for a second time, prompting a move to Toronto, where Keanu lived for the next 18 years.
"Even though I've lived in a lot of different places, and I've led pretty much a nomad lifestyle, in my heart I will always consider Toronto home," Reeves says. "I have some really great memories of Toronto, especially Christmas ones. I can remember living on Avenue Road at Davenport and going to Rosedale Park on Christmas Day to do a little tobogganing, then coming back home all wet and bruised and eating again and being really happy. It was a great place to grow up."
An avid hockey player, by his early teens Reeves also took an interest in acting, and performing in school plays only heightened his desire to pursue it as a profession. He left school before graduation, and started landing high-profile stage roles at various Toronto theatres. In 1984, a critically acclaimed performance in the homoerotic Brad Fraser play Wolf Boy led to a minor role in the Rob Lowe hockey pic Youngblood. Bitten hard by the acting bug, Reeves made the difficult decision to leave his beloved Toronto for Los Angeles.
"I realized that if I wanted to make a serious go at a film career, I would have to live in Hollywood," he recalls. "I was getting some great work in Toronto, but you have to go to where the work is. And in those days, it was in Hollywood. So, I packed up my bags and headed west."
Reeves wouldn't have to wait long for that film work. Almost immediately after arriving in Tinsel Town, he was cast in the dark teen drama River's Edge, winning rave reviews for his intense performance as an alienated, plaid-clad high school student. Before long, he was being cast opposite some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
But while his career has been on a steady incline from the moment he landed in The City Of Angels, it's also been fraught with rumours, innuendo and controversy. Shy by nature, Reeves is often perceived by the press as aloof or downright rude. And, over the years, his unwavering refusal to answer personal questions has led the media to speculate on everything from his sexual preference to his bathing habits. While the rumours used to bother him, Reeves says he has learned to laugh at the outrageous stories concocted by the entertainment corps.
"Bewildered, befuddled and bamboozled is how I used to feel about all those so-called 'facts' about me," he says jokingly. "But they've gotten so crazy, they're not even worth thinking about. I remember the one where I was swimming naked with Sharon Stone at a hotel in L.A., and I was like, ‘Wow, I wish that was true.’ And there's one right now claiming someone was trying to sell my spleen on the internet. That is pretty wacky, especially since my spleen is in me. So how can you take any of that seriously?"
The Australian press will have the next turn at the Reeves rumour mill, as the actor will spend the next 18 months down under filming parts two and three of The Matrix.
While most actors harbour mixed feelings about doing sequels, Reeves is actually excited to be revisiting his role as a computer hacker turned hero.
"I've even said this to my fellow Matrix actors - even though we've had this experience before, we haven't had the particular one we are about to have. You have to come in with a new mind to a certain extent.... Be open, don't prejudice what you feel like you might know. Ask again. Ask in the present. If we all go into it with that frame of mind, the two new ones are going to be even better than the first. I'm really excited about it."
Reeves plans to return to the stage once his Matrix duties are finished. His last theatrical experience, a 1995 Winnipeg production of Hamlet, was "so extremely gratifying," he says he can't wait to step in front of the footlights again.
"I had forgotten how much I loved live theatre," he explains. "Live theatre emotionally resembles walking out on stage for a concert or entering a wild scene in a movie. It's really exciting and fun, but sometimes it's nerve-wracking. Some nights you walk out and you're relaxed and ready to go. Other nights you feel like you are going to pass out because you are so nervous. But the audiences were so gracious in Winnipeg. I just hope that what I do next on stage is received just as well, wherever I perform it. I just want to keep doing great things and not have any regrets about having done them."
Although Reeves is the first to admit he hasn't always made the wisest choices in his personal or professional life ("There's a couple of movies I did I wish would disappear," he says with a laugh), much like his Hardball character, he's always been allowed the chance to choose a different path.
"We're all human, and we all make mistakes," Reeves waxes philosophical. "But if you can see where you might have taken a wrong turn and correct it, then you'll be fine. I am grateful that I am able to produce and get films made that I am attracted to. But it was a long road getting here and one filled with a couple of detours. Without those little detours, though, we'd never learn how to grow. And I'm constantly growing - every minute of every day. If you can't grow, then there's no point to what you're doing. That's why you'll never hear me say I'm where I'm supposed to be, because I could be somewhere else tomorrow."
Not everyone shares Reeves' optimism that Hardball will change the way people think about America's inner cities. While filming in Chicago last year the baseball picture drew harsh criticism from locals, including Mayor Richard Daley, for its unflattering portrayal of The Windy City and its allegedly racist depiction of kids from the projects. Chicagoans are concerned that the black Little Leaguers swear too much, are portrayed as gangstas-in-the-making, and that their hometown is being overrun with crime and murder.
But complaints from the city that gave us Al Capone, John Wayne Gacy and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre don't stop there. Real-life baseball coach Robert Muzikowski has accused Paramout Pictures of stealing his life story. Hardball is based on the non-fiction book Hardball: A Season in the Projects, which recounts Muzikowski's experiences as a Little League coach. Muzikowski says he never sold the rights to his story and is threatening to take Paramount to court. Studio lawyers defended the picture with the statement that Hardball is "a dramatic work of fiction... inspired by real events."